by Philip Ferguson
Tonight while people in New Zealand are sitting in front of the TV or relaxing in a bar after another week in the most placid country in the world, the people of the south of Ireland (where it will be Friday morning) will be heading off to the polls for the first general election since February 2011. That election marked a watershed in Irish politics and this election is likely to reinforce the trends made evident in the 2011 southern Irish election – and, for that matter, in elections in the north over the past 15 or so years.
What are the key changes marking this new political cycle?
Modernisation and renewal of capitalist social relations
In the north the ‘moderate’ parties of the nationalist (mainly Catholic) and Unionist (mainly Protestant) communities have been replaced by what were once regarded as the more extreme parties – Sinn Fein on the left (in the nationalist/Catholic population) and the Democratic Unionist Party on the right (in the Unionist/Protestant population). These two, once deeply opposed, forces have made up a coalition regime in the north which has implemented austerity more effectively than the ‘moderates’ ever could have while working with the British imperialists to modernise the wider society.
In the south a process of political modernisation and renewal through party replacement has also been taking place, although beginning somewhat later.
For a start, in every election from 1932 until the 2011 landmark election, the Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) party won the most votes and the most seats. The second major party, Fine Gael (Society of the Gael), could only form governments by going into coalition with another party and, sometimes, a cluster of other parties. No Fine Gael-led coalition lasted more than one term, while Fianna Fail governments were in power for 16 years on two occasions and 14 years on another occasion, although it’s now several decades since Fianna Fail could form a single party government.
‘Civil war politics’
Southern Irish politics were often referred to as ‘Civil War politics’ because these two parties arose out of the opposing sides in the bitter civil war of 1922-23. At the end of 1921 the Irish independence movement – in particular a [party (Sinn Fein) and an army (the Army of the Irish Republic) which had fought a bitter war and civil society struggle against Britain for independence and progressive social change, split over a treaty offered them by Britain. Part of the independence movement, backed by big business and the Catholic Church, were satisfied by the terms offered by the British while a majority of the movement rejected it. The pro-treaty forces set up a state in the south, backed by the British and then attacked those who opposed the treaty. With British money and arms as well as a great deal of sheer ruthlessness, the treatyite forces beat the anti-treayites who had been extremely naive about the lengths to which their former comrades would go to beat them.
An extremely politically repressive, free-market, neo-colonial regime was stabilised under the Cumann na nGaedheal party (the treatyite split from Sinn Fein). In 1926 a majority of the remaining Sinn Fein organisation split away and formed Fianna Fail, which took power in 1932. The anti-treaty forces thus lost the civil war but won the peace. Fianna Fail, however, quickly integrated itself in the institutions of the very state it was once pledged to get rid of. (For the period of Irish history from roughly 1900 to 1930, see here.)
After having originally been denounced as ‘communists’ by the Catholic Church, Fianna Fail forged close ties with it and generally reflected the social policy of the Church, combined with Keynesian-style economic policies. Fianna Fail adopted the pose of being ‘the republican party’ and this and its Labour-style economic policies gave it a mass following among workers, small farmers and a layer of small business interests. The tentacles of Fianna Fail reached not only into the state that it ran for most of the time after 1932, but into civil society institutions from the trade unions to business organisations to mass sporting bodies like the Gaelic Athletic Association, community groups; indeed, Fianna Fail was everywhere in Irish life in the south. Historically, it tended to regard itself as a national movement, standing above classes, rather than a mere political party, even though it only organised in the south of Ireland until very recently.
With Fianna Fail sweeping into power in the early 1930s, the Cumann na nGaedheal party was exhausted and merged with the parties of the big farmers and the fascist ‘Blueshirts’ movement to form Fine Gael. However, Fine Gael remained the number two party for decades; it typically formed coalitions with Labour. And these coalitions never lasted more than one term.
In 2011, however, Fine Gael overtook Fianna Fail for the first time ever. Not only that, but the Soldiers of Destiny (as its name means) were also overtaken by Labour for the first time ever, and indeed collapsed. In 2007, Fianna Fail won 77 seats, but in 2011 won only 20 in the 166-seat parliament and a mere 17.5% of the vote; it was an historic defeat and one that it will be hard for ‘the Soldiers’ to come back from.
Rise of Sinn Fein
Another notable feature of the 2011 election was the rise of Sinn Fein, which went from a mere four seats in 2007 to 14. A range of independents won seats, and a coalition of followers of the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky even won five seats.
These trends – the rise of Sinn Fein and the independents and even, to some extent, the Trotskyists – are likely to be reinforced when the votes are counted on Saturday (NZ time).
The count is also likely to show a fall in support for Labour as meteoric as its rise in 2011, when it achieved its best result since 1922 in terms of percentage of votes and most successful ever in terms of its seat share. In 2011, Fianna Fail and its Green Party partners were punished for imposing harsh austerity measures following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. However, Fine Gael and its Labour partners simply continued to impose austerity during the past five years. One result was that in the 2014 Euro and local body elections Labour lost a large chunk of its voting base to Sinn Fein. The Shinners are now the number two party in terms of Euro seats and the number three party (behind Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) in local government seats. In Dublin itself the Shinners are the largest party.
Going into this week’s election polls indicate that the most popular electoral force is not a party but Independents. They have been consistently running a couple of percentage points ahead of Fine Gael, while Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein duke it out for next place, with Labour trailing far behind. Labour may, indeed, struggle to stay ahead of the Trotskyists, especially given a party split and competition in the form of the new Social Democrats, a small outfit formed by several Labour parliamentarians uneasy with just how far (and how enthusiastically) Labour was prepared to go in imposing austerity.
Political ferment in the south
The elections take place amidst the most significant ferment in the south of Ireland since the 1981 hunger strikes by IRA prisoners in the north. Huge movements have emerged to resist austerity, for instance. The first developed in opposition to a household tax that was being imposed while the banks which had been at the heart of a massive and artificial bubble economy were being bailed out by the state and the mass of the population was being lumbered with a debt the equivalent of almost 100 billion NZ dollars. The state only defeated this movement by taking the household tax directly out of people’s pay packets. Fine Gael and Labour then imposed a water tax, prompting a new mass movement of opposition. In this case, the state can’t simply take tax out of workers’ pay – it needs to get water meters in the ground and keep them there.
A swathe of working class communities, however, are physically preventing the installation of meters and sabotaging them where they have been installed. Huge demonstrations and mass refusal to register for the tax are further weapons being used by large sections of the population.
Such resistance lies behind the rise of Sinn Fein, the Trotskyists – who have won two by-elections in the last few years and now hold 7 seats – and a significant number of left independents. While Sinn Fein is actively implementing austerity in the north, its electoral fortunes in the south depend on it presenting itself as an anti-austerity party and being a lot smarter than Labour, by staying out of a junior coalition position. For many years Sinn Fein had trouble in getting transfer votes – the electoral system is PR with a single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies – but this problem is certainly easing. The party also tends to get very high first preference votes, for instance topping the poll in the Euro election in the three-seat Dublin Euro constituency. One of the things to watch is how far the Sinn Fein surge of 2014 can go.
Since Labour politicians have been vicious, hardcore advocates of the attacks on workers’ rights, the shift over to Sinn Fein will be substantial very substantial.
What usually happens when Labour is in coalition is that one section of its voters drift back to Fianna Fail and another vote for something to the left of Labour. In the past, however, no forces to its left have succeeded in overtaking Labour. This has now changed, as they have been given a pasting by Sinn Fein in the local and Euro elections and will also receive a drubbing in this general election. The Shinners could easily get double the Labour vote and seats. Indeed, Labour may even struggle to stay ahead of the Trotskyists in terms of seat numbers.
100th anniversary of the Easter Rising
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the 1916 armed rebellion for Irish independence and radical social change. That event has always been somewhat problematic for the southern state and establishment politicians. While Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Labour can also trace roots back to ‘the men of women of Easter Week’, that rebellion became a problem after the southern state was set up. After all, it was an attempt at revolution and that was not to be viewed too kindly once the counter-revolution had triumphed and a neo-colony established. 1916 became especially problematic when armed conflict broke out in the north. Essentially, it ceased to be celebrated by the southern establishment.
The centenary is a bit of a nightmare for the southern establishment. Sinn Fein is the only parliamentary party which fully embraces the deeds and vision of the Easter Week rebels. And it has gotten one up on the government by organising major celebrations of the Rising and inviting the public of all political persuasions – thereby acting as if it is the government. Since Sinn Fein is probably the richest political party in Ireland these days, thanks to a substantial amount of American money, they are in a position to put on such a show.
The meltdown of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and the imposition of anti-working class austerity has also led to wide public discussion about whether the Irish state, as it is now, is really what ‘men and women of Easter Week’ fought (and died) for. The chief beneficiary of this discussion can only be Sinn Fein.
The new trends in Irish politics, however, mean that there is no chance of a single-party government being formed and Fine Gael will be unable to form a coalition with its usual partner, Labour. In one sense – namely that both embrace right-wing economics – it would be logical for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to coalesce, supported by Labour and the more right-wing independents. However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have almost a hundred years of enmity due to their origins in opposing sides in the Civil War.
Southern Irish parliamentary politicians, however, are nothing if not horse-traders. It can’t be ruled out that some hotch-potch government will be put formed that will struggle to last a full term; but it may be that the result precludes any, even temporarily stable, government from being formed.
Either way, these look like continuing to be turbulent times in southern Irish politics. It is, perhaps, an irony that while the north is now stable, with old enemies working together in government, the south is now the more tumultuous part of the island of Ireland.
Moreover, larger anti-capitalist forces exist outside of parliamentary politics than inside. Despite their representation in the southern parliament, for instance, the Trotskyists don’t have deep roots in the working class and haven’t been able to grow much. The left-republicans, who tend to eschew parliamentary politics, have deeper roots in the working class and, put together, are significantly larger although substantially poorer – than the Trotskyists. They are focused on building centres of resistance in the working class communities from which they come. One of these organisations in particular, éirígí, has played a leading role in the resistance to the household and water taxes and has its eyes more on building this resistance than parliamentary elections.